Samuel Willard (1776-1859) graduated from Harvard in 1803. He worked as a tutor at Bowdoin College (1804-1805), and became a minister of the Congregational Church in Deerfield, Massachusetts (1807-1829). He continued to preach occasionally throughout his life. The following sermon was preached by Willard in 1808 at the occasion of opening a bridge in Northampton, Massachusetts.
S E R M O N,
PREACHED AT NORTHAMPTON,
OCTOBER 27, 1808,
AT THE OPENING
BY SAMUEL WILLARD,
MINISTER OF DEERFIELD.
AT a Meeting of the Proprietors of the Northampton Bridge, holden at the house of Barnabas Billings, in said Northampton, on Thursday the 27th of October, 1808;
E. H. MILLS,
“HATH NOT MY HAND MADE ALL THESE THINGS?”
ACTS, VII, 50.
“The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God;” 1 and of all the folly that has ever resulted from dullness or affectation, it may be difficult to find an instance to be compared with the absurdity of atheism. A denial of Divine Providence; a supposition, that the order and harmony of the boundless system of things, when once in being, could be preserved, without the unceasing agency of an omniscient and almighty Superintendant, is sufficiently unphilosophical and absurd. But it will appear much more extravagant, to suppose that all the material, inactive, and unintelligent things we behold, came into existence, without an intelligent creator; and that the innumerable instances of exquisite organization, were all results of chance. Indeed, a person, who could admit this, deserves not to be numbered with RATIONAL creatures; and much less with philosophers.
Of all truths, scarcely any is more evident, than the existence of GOD.
“That there’s a GOD, all nature cries aloud,
Thro all her works.”
The heavens and the earth, with all they contain; every fowl of the air; every beast of the field; every fish, that swims in the ocean; every tree of the forest and grove; every herb; every flower is a witness of his being.
The God, of whose being we have such evidence, is the Creator of all things visible and invisible. “Of old he laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the work of his hands.” 2 It is HE that hath lighted up the sun, the moon, and the stars, and hung them, as lamps in the sky. It is HE that created the rivers, and scooped out a bason for the ocean, and filled it with water. It is HE that hath formed the vegetables, from the least to the greatest. It is HE that hath organized our bodies, with those of all animal things, and given us the breath of life.
Further; God is to be regarded, as the author not only of all the works of NATURE, as they are called, but of those also, which, in distinction from these, are called ARTIFICIAL.
We are not, indeed, to be considered as mere machines. We have a proper agency of our own. But we are so dependent on God, that HE is to be considered the “author and finisher” of everything we do, that is lawful and wise. Every utensil we form; every garment we make; every house we build; every bridge we erect, is in an important sense, the work of his hands. This will appear from several considerations.
1. It is God who provides MATERIALS, without which we must be inactive. We cannot, like him, raise a fabric out of NOTHING. Nor is it enough, that we have materials, unless they be suitable. We might as well attempt to build a house or a bridge with nothing, as with some things in existence.
We may TRANSPORT timber from place to place, if the distance be not too great, nor the intervening space impassable. We may alter the FORM of stuff, making that straight or crooked, which was naturally otherwise, and in various ways accommodating it to our purposes. And by composition, or analysis, or some other operation, we may, in some instances, give a permanent form, and a strong cohesion to things, which in their original state, have little or NO cohesion. Thus we may furnish ourselves with materials for building, where at first sight there appear to be none; and, when furnished, we can dispose and connect them, and form an edifice according to our mind.
Here are the limits of human power. Justly, then, may it be said, “The hand of the Lord hath made all these things.” The part we perform, compared with that HE does, is a very humble one; so humble, that it is hardly to be named. But,
2. God may challenge to himself the honor of all artificial works, so far as they are honorable, not only as the principal part is performed by his immediate agency, but as it is HE that gives us wisdom to provide for our convenience.
What would have been the situation of mankind, had they continued innocent; whether in that case they would have been subjected to any inconveniences, during their abode in this world; or what change the curse, or the general deluge, that was sent for the disobedience and corruption of man, produced in the earth, we cannot tell. But this we know, that among many CONVENIENCES, fallen man is naturally subject to many INCONVENIENCES. Indeed, most of the blessings of life are attended with some trouble; and very few things are prepared for our use and enjoyment, without some invention and labor on our part.
But God has provided for our wants, by bestowing on us the power of invention. “There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding.” Our Creator has made us capable of perceiving the various qualities, relations, and affections of things, and not only of perceiving them, when occasionally presented to our observation, but of SEARCHING into the nature of things, and by scientific attainments, originating or improving useful arts. Thus we may overcome inconveniences, and by racing out the means, convert to our enjoyment things, that are seemingly most remote from use.
For this most noble talent, and for all the improvements we are enabled to make, we are indebted to the Author of our being. To the great Builder of the world we are under obligations for our skill in ARCHITECTURE, by which we are enabled to provide ourselves with commodious habitations, bridges, &c. as well as for the invention of various instruments of labor, without which our greatest designs could not be carried into effect. It is God who teaches the BEAVER to raise his pond, and the bird and the insect to build their nests. Most surely then, he is to be acknowledged in our SUPERIOR power of contrivance and execution. “He teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven.” 3
From the observations here made it appears, that for more reasons than one, it appears, that for more reasons than one, it may be said of every fabric we raise, and of every valuable production of art, “The hand of God has made all these things.”
3. God is the Author of all the worthy productions of our hands, as he is the author and preserver of those powers by which we EXECUTE our designs. In all things we are dependent on him; and in our bodies more especially, or rather, more APPARENTLY, we have no independent or permanent strength. Though, as observed above, we in our whole nature and constitution are not mere machines, our BODIES are nothing else. All our external strength, by which the action of the mind is conveyed to material objects around us, is purely mechanical. And as our animal frame is a machine, so it is of such a slender construction, that it is always tending to ruin, and is in need of constant or frequent repairs. Continual exercise soon wears it out, and renders it incapable of motion. In regard to permanent strength, it is not to be compared with many machines constructed by the art of man. A clock, or a mill, with little or no repair, may be kept in ceaseless motion for many years; but the human body scarcely one day. Without food and rest our strength would presently be exhausted. It is true, there are means provided for repairing the waste of time and exercise, so that this most delicate machine is made more lasting, than any among the works of man. But we can do little in the application of these means. Without the divine agency to convey reparatives to the parts that need, it were vain for us to eat or drink. And without God it were equally vain to expect refreshment from inaction. As well might we hope an INANIMATE machine, when worn out, would be repaired by disuse. It is the Former of our bodies, who alone is able to remove our weariness by rest and sleep. It is HE that diffuses thro the joints, that have been exhausted and stiffened by labor, the necessary moisture, and in this way prepares them for renewed exercise.
Thus God supports or revives our wasting strength. Thus it is “in him,” or thro his agency, “we live and move.” On this account alone he might claim the honor of all our works. Much more, when we take into view the several things that have now been suggested, should we acquiesce in his holy declaration, “My hand hath made all these things.”
Thus much, my friends, may suffice for the doctrine of our text, which is too plain to require any proof or much illustration. The remaining part of this discourse will be composed of hints and reflections, suggested by the subject or the occasion. And,
1. Our subject suggests to us the duty of acknowledging God in all our undertakings, and especially in the more important, looking to him for his blessing on our labors and designs, without which we much labor in vain. This is a very natural duty. It is one that could not be excusably omitted by a heathen, and much less by one, who is favored with the religion of CHRIST. When we see that any HUMAN aid, whether public or private, is needful to the success of a favorite design, while we have reason to believe that by asking we may obtain, we do not neglect to ask. And it must be very unreasonable not to supplicate the DIVINE blessing which is indispensable to our success, and which we are encouraged to expect on this, and on no other condition.
2. The occasion suggests to us the duty of gratitude to God, that in the original constitution of nature, things were disposed so much for our convenience; and that we are enabled to remove many of the inconveniences we find, and in various ways meliorate our condition.
All things at creation were “good” in the eyes of HIM, who would have discovered the least imperfection. Everything great and small, animate and inanimate, was created for some purpose worthy of the all-wise Creator; and this purpose was in every instance effected.
The great design, or at least one of the leading designs of this lower creation, was the happiness of him, who was formed “after the image of HIM that made him.” For his use everything beneath the sun was designed, and all were good for him. It is true, there are numberless other creatures on earth, capable of happiness. But these, while indulged with their proper enjoyments, were all servants of man; and every tree of the forest, and every herb of the field, was, we have reason to suppose, designed to subserve in some way direct or indirect, the HAPPINESS of man. 4
And, whatever change took place in the earth, at the time of the great apostasy of mankind, we are still surrounded with many accommodations. A great proportion of the things we see, human actions excepted, may be pronounced good. Many things indeed may, at the first view, appear incapable of promoting human enjoyment; and a child or an adult, whose experience and observation had been confined within a very small circle, might pronounce them worthless, tho’ persons of more knowledge consider them of great value. If fully acquainted with the nature of things in their PRESENT state, perhaps we should find nothing, which might not be useful to man.
That our convenience and enjoyment have been so much consulted, in the original constitution and disposition of things, and that our accommodations in this life are still so good, notwithstanding our unworthiness, should certainly be made subjects of thankful acknowledgement.
It is true, as already observed, things which in some respects are among our best accommodations, may in other respects be occasions of great difficulty and trouble. Fire and water, tho’ among the NECESSARIES of life, when not restrained within due bounds, may destroy all our OTHER means of life. Rivers which fertilize the neighboring meadows, while in the direction of their courses they facilitate commerce; as well as MOUNTAINS and HILLS, which among other benefits, give rise to these streams; are naturally great IMPEDIMENTS when we wish to pass from one place to another on opposite sides of them.
But, thanks to God, most of the difficulties we meet, not excepted the greatest, may be lessened, if not entirely removed by human labor and contrivance. It seems not to have been the design of the Creator, that human happiness should be the reward or the privilege of INDOLENCE, but of ACTIVITY. Our situation in this life is such, as will naturally call forth exertion. Few of the comforts or even of the NECESARIES of life are in their natural state ready for our use. While in INNOCENCE, man was required to dress the garden, which had been prepared and planted for him. 5 And after the fall his support and comfort were made still more dependent on the exercise of his strength and skill. 6
What supernatural instructions relative to the common arts of life were, in the infancy of the world, afforded mankind, we cannot determine. We have reason to believe however, that with a very few exceptions, these arts were left to human invention, aided, as all our exertion must be in order to success, by DIVINE wisdom and energy. Of this at least we are sure, that in the early ages of the world, many useful arts and some that are now considered NECESSARY to enjoyment or activity, were unknown. In general the arts, and the sciences, on which they are founded, have been progressive from the earliest to the present time; and within a few centuries some of the most important discoveries and inventions have been made, especially in the means of traffic and literary communication. And by our proficiency in mechanics and other branches of natural philosophy, many machines have within a few years been invented, by which the conveniences of life are procured with a vast saving of manual labor. In some branches of ARCHITECTURE, is must be confessed that no improvements have for many ages been made; and the patterns left us by the Greeks, are considered INCAPABLE of alteration for the better. In the building of Bridges however we vastly exceed he ancients; if not in the science and skill, at least in ENTERPRISE of this kind.
The histories of primitive times informs us of many works of almost incredible magnitude, which, tho’ they discover no great skill, shew the laborious spirit of those who effected them; or rather the strength of that despotism, by which thousands, could for years be subjected to hard labor for the gratification of pride or some idle fancy. Many of their most stupendous works were of little or no utility. But this is not the case with the greatest part of MODERN works. They are generally of public or private benefit. Our days have produced some, inferior in magnitude to very few productions of antiquity. In our times, by the erection of bridges, we travel over navigable waters as on dry land, while by means of canals, in the preparation of which the most stubborn rocks are rent, and the everlasting hills give way, we navigate into the heart of a continent.
Thus my friends, by the various discoveries and inventions, that have been made in the progress of years, we are relieved from a multitude of inconveniences, to which the ancients were exposed, and furnished with innumerable accommodations, to them unknown. And we have still abundant encouragement, to study the things, which may alleviate the hardships and contribute to the comforts of life. Most surely then we should be grateful to the author of all good for the favorable constitution of things, and for the means and ability of making such alterations in the state of surrounding objects, as we may find conducive to our east and comfort. Temporal accommodations and enjoyments are not indeed among our greatest blessings. We are under much stronger obligations to be thankful for religious favors, and especially for the great work of REDEMPTION by Jesus Christ, than for any temporal advantages, however great. But every favor of heaven is to be received with thanksgiving, and it is hardly consistent with gratitude for the greater to overlook the less. But
3. The subject admonishes us to be HUMBLE in the contemplation of our own works, comparing them with the works of God.
Mankind are very apt to VAUNT themselves in the works of their hands. The words of Nebuchadnezzar, the proud king of Babylon, while walking in his palace, and surveying the ensigns of his fancied greatness, were “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of my kingdom, by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?” 7 And many others inferior to him have indulged the same feelings, whence this language proceeded.
There is indeed a remarkable difference in the characters and conditions of men, when compared one with another. Some by their activity and enterprise, or by their hereditary wealth, provide themselves with easy and some with sumptuous accommodations, while others live in great plainness or poverty. And it is not strange, if some, while they compare themselves with none but their fellow mortals, are elated with the consideration of their own superiority. But in the presence of God, all human distinctions are almost lost.—Compared with His the greatest and most improved of our works are nothing, less than nothing, and vanity. In such a comparison there are many things to inspire us with humility.
In the first place, there is an inconceivable difference between the works of men and those of God, in NUMBER and MAGNITUDE. The building of an edifice to cover a few rods of ground, and extend a few feet into the air; the cutting of a canal of a moderate width and a few miles in length, perhaps thro’ hills, which in comparison with the earth are little more than grains; and the erection of a Bridge, that may be passed in a few minutes, are among the greatest of our works. And what are these compared with the earth, we inhabit? And what is the earth compared with the solar system? And again, what is this system to the whole extent of creation? If, as we have reason to believe, the numberless stars that appear in the skies, with millions of others, which thro’ their incalculable and inconceivable distance give no other evidence of their being, than a few faint and confused rays, are all suns enlightening each a great number of planets, the earth on which we live, which separately considered, appears so great, is little more than an ATOM, compared with the rest of God’s works. What then are the greatest productions of human power? Their comparative insignificance is inexpressible. They vanish into nothing.
Another consideration, that forbids all boasting while we survey the greatness of our works, is that we must expend MUCH LABOR and TIME in effecting a little. The greatest of human designs are in general many years in execution. But there is no such necessity with God. Only six days were employed in the creation of our system; and why so much time was employed, is perhaps an inscrutable secret of the divine counsels. Or, if it be lawful for so ignorant creatures, as we, to hazard a conjecture on such a subject, we may suppose the gradual succession of God’s works was designed to aid the comprehension of those seraphic spirits, whose exalted service it is, to contemplate without intermission the wonderful works of God, and render him unceasing praise; and another design might be to leave us an example “of order and not of confusion.” Had it seemed good in the sight of God, TO EXERT his omnipotence, one word and one instant, had been sufficient to give being to all the innumerable worlds, that NOW exist. Such power is incomprehensible by us, and the thought of it almost overwhelming, and it should certainly extinguish every spark of vain glory.
But further; our most considerable works require the co-operation of many individuals, as well as a long course of time. Man is a feeble creature; and during a long life, the greatest solitary exertions would effect little. Were the undivided glory of any production then much greater than it is, when distributed among all, who may claim a share, the dividend would in general be very small. But GOD has no partner in the glory of HIS works. He is under no necessity of calling in the aid of his creatures for the execution of his greatest designs. The Father thro’ the agency of his only begotten Son, created the world with all things now in existence, and neither angels nor archangels had any part in the work or the glory of it. The principalities and powers of Heaven were mere SPECTATORS of the work.
Once more; I would observe, that God’s designs were all perfect in the origin, neither wanting, nor capable of improvement. Not only the works of creation, but those of PROVIDENCE and REDEMPTION, were dictated by infallible wisdom. “Known unto God are all his works, from the beginning of the world,” 8 not excepted those which are accommodated to the actions of his creatures; and it is impossible for anything to frustrate his designs, or render any measures needful on his part, that were not ordained from eternity.
But how erroneous and deficient are the most ingenious inventions of man, till corrected and improved by experiment! In some things, it is true, we may calculate effects with a considerable degree of certainty. But a great many of our designs are little more than experiments, and want of success often compels us to VARY, if not ABANDON our plans. And notwithstanding the present imperfection of most human designs, they have been a long time in coming to their present state, and in general a small part of the honor belongs to the last inventor. In the early ages of the world, the arts were few, and extremely defective; but from those times to these, they have been gradually increased and improved. One generation inherits from another, and in general adds something to the inheritance. But a small part of the inventions, that are made, are anything more than slight meliorations of former ones. It is true, that on the discovery of new properties or relations in things, original inventions are made. But the first inventors almost always leave them far short of perfection.
Such, my friends, are the defects of human contrivance, and so little reason have we to boast of our most distinguished productions. But,
4. While we contemplate the improvements, that are gradually made in our own country, we should drop a tear over the declining state of many foreign countries, in which the works of centuries are swept away with a torrent of desolation, and where the citizens, instead of leisure for improvements, have scarcely time for procuring the ordinary means of life. Such is more or less the case of almost every nation of Europe. There are some, indeed, which, during the present wars, have not seen the ravages of an invading and triumphant foe; and some of these find abundance of time for the exercise of injustice and inhumanity. But these are so much employed in the art and practice of war, that they have little time or disposition for cultivating the arts of peace. And, tho’ the productions of past ages remain among them, it cannot be supposed they make many improvements. What then, shall we think of those countries which have been overrun, perhaps once and again, by large and lawless armies, or rather, by armies, whose law was rapine, desolation, and murder? What proficiency could be hoped from such in the arts of life? And, tho’ peace succeed these calamities, what encouragement can they have for the least enterprise or exertion, while they behold the ruins of their former labors, and feel the loss of their independence, and of all those privileges, which had descended from their fathers, perhaps thro’ a long succession of ages, and while of course they have no security of any reward for future exertions? If persons alive, with the feelings of men, are not in DESPAIR in such circumstances; if they are still able to enjoy the remaining comforts of life; they must be allowed to have no small share of fortitude. No EXERTION is to be hoped from them. Still less and they be expected to cultivate the arts of life, if after their own degradation, they are compelled to assist with all their resources, in the subjugation of others. And such my friends, has long been the situation of no small part of the European nations, while others, to defend and preserve their rights, have almost universally united the characters of citizens and soldiers.
How widely different has been the situation of our country! For several years after the flames of war were lighted up in Europe, we experienced little inconvenience from them. Refraining from all needless interference, we enjoyed a tranquil state, which gave us an opportunity for enriching ourselves with commerce, and cultivating to an eminent degree the useful arts. And tho’ within a few years we have suffered many injuries and indignities, from those who acknowledge no law but power, the sound of battle has not yet been heard in our land; we are not yet deprived of our independence; we may still sit by our own firesides, “without any to molest or make us afraid:” we are still at leisure to pursue the works of peace.—Our inquiries are not, how shall we contrive to raise or support vast armies, either for our own protection, or for the gratification of an ambitious and blood thirsty master or ally? But how shall we enlarge and beautify our dwellings, alleviate by mechanical aids, the ordinary labors of life, and by the improvement of roads, the erection of bridges, &c. facilitate the journeys of those, who travel for business, health, or amusement?
The improvements made in our country within these twenty years, are perhaps unexampled. It is only a few years since the establishment of the first turnpike road in our country, and now a great part of the considerable places in the union are connected by turnpikes. In the NUMBER and LENGTH of our BRIDGES, tho’ not in the MATERIALS of which they are composed, we rival almost every country under heaven; and every year adds several to the number.
A comparison of our condition with that of most foreign countries should awaken within us the most generous sympathy for their degradation and distress, while it enkindles within us the most lively gratitude to the Giver of all good for his distinguished favors.
5. The occasion constrains me to add one word of acknowledgement to those, from whose enterprise we derive many of our public accommodations. Bridges are of very great utility; and, if the one we now see opened, be allowed to stand, it will very much accommodate THIS and other neighboring towns, and the public in general. A person of a little experience will discover several reasons for preferring a bridge to a ferry. Without a bridge, a river like this can never in the open months be passed without considerable delay, frequently not without danger, and in some seasons not at all.
We wish success to this enterprise, and hope the projectors of it will be indemnified for all their trouble and expense.
6. One thought remains. All our worldly projects, however perfectly executed, are TEMPORAL; but some of our works are ETERNAL. The houses we build for our present accommodation, must crumble into dust, yonder bridge, if not swept away by ice nor flood, will shortly fall into ruin. But we are each erecting an edifice of indissoluble materials, that will remain, when the earth is no more. This building my friends, is either a prison of darkness and eternal woe, or a palace of glory and everlasting blessedness. Let us take heed how we build. Let us build on the stone that is laid in Zion, with the materials our Saviour has provided: and thus, when our earthly tabernacles shall be dissolved, may we be received into everlasting habitations, thro’ Jesus Christ; to whom be glory and praise forever. Amen.
Originally published: Dec. 26, 2016